Film Review: Mortal Engines

A little bit of background first, when I was at Year 7 in school I had to study Philip Reeve’s book Mortal Engines as part of my English classes. Usually, when you have to study a book as a child, you lose interest pretty quickly and that book becomes the bane of your school-life… I’m looking at you, Shakespeare. But I fell in love with Mortal Engines, in fact, I loved it so much I went on to read the remaining books in the series, I would say they are my favourite books of all time, and they’re one of the series that still to this day inspire me to write a novel of my own one day.

So, immediately, this film would be met by myself with the grandest levels of anticipation. This can be a good and a bad thing, because I was excited to see how my childhood favourites would appear on the big screen, but equally, I was nervous that it was going to be butchered and my childhood ruined, there was a lot at stake here! Somehow, I both adored and hated this film, and I’ll tell you why… You will probably find an element of bias in this review and quite a few comparisons to the book counterparts, something which won’t be a factor for many when they see this film, so I apologise for that in advance, but for someone who is so passionate about this series, I’m inevitably going to find myself referring the source material at times.

I won’t go into too many details as I want to avoid spoiling the story for people. But essentially, the world of Mortal Engines takes place hundreds of years after a devastating nuclear war. Cities have now put themselves on wheels, and they scour the wastelands in search of resources. It’s a strange concept, granted, but the film does as an excellent job of putting any reservations about this at ease, by thrusting us straight into a breathtaking sequence where the “Predator City”, London, chases down one of the smaller towns that roam the wastelands. It is genuinely one of the most entertaining openings I have ever seen in a film, the visuals are incredible, the score is captivating and it’s just immense fun. I was in awe at how well created these cities were, it was like they were taken straight from my childhood imagination and put onto the screen. By the end of this sequence I would bet that the majority of audiences will be on board with this ridiculous notion of “Traction Cities”, simply because they are so cool to watch.

The film does a fantastic job of capturing the essence of a post-apocalyptic world, with many humorous references to “relics” of the Old Age which audiences will undoubtedly recognise. Although it doesn’t come across as overbearingly bleak or helpless, this works well, as we are plunged into a society which is now fairly settled into their ways, this is more a “New Age” of humanity rather than a standard regressive society that you may well find in most post-apocalypse fiction.

The strength of the book was always the rich, interesting characters that came with it. This is even more important in the film, because once you’ve gotten over the visual spectacle of London and the other towns and cities, you need those strong characters and narrative to latch on to, to drive the story forward. The result is mixed, but ultimately successful.

Hester Shaw, the main protagonist, is played well by Hera Hilmar and she does a good job in creating an engaging, interesting character. However, I feel that reception towards her will be mixed depending on whether or not you’ve read the books or not. In the books, Hester is a cold, dark woman with a hideous disfigurement, she develops and changes as the story goes on but still maintains that inner darkness and that becomes a recurring theme throughout the series. This film version of Hester disappointed me, because her “disfigurement” is nothing more than a scar on her face which doesn’t make her look hideous at all, (yet the characters in the film still talk about it like she’s a monster) in fact, she’s still quite an attractive young woman which to me, this felt like a complete betrayal of her character, I get that looks aren’t everything, but in Hester’s case I felt like her injuries and her flaws are what made her such an engaging character. I understand that it’s probably hard to market the book version to casual film audiences, but I felt like we were being robbed of the true Hester Shaw and she did feel like a dumbed-down version of what is a very complex character in the books, she’s still cold and she still has that darkness, but not anywhere close to what it could have been. Again, this probably won’t be an issue for anyone who hasn’t read the books and they’ll probably find Hester to be a perfectly fine protagonist, but for me, it felt like a missed opportunity.

The rest of the cast are excellent, Robert Sheehan captures the awkward innocence of Tom Natsworthy to perfection and is as close to his book counterpart as I could have asked. Hugo Weaving is equally fantastic as Thaddeus Valentine, although the film does seem to eradicate the blurred lines of evil from the book and set out to make sure he is an irredeemable big bad instead, although I would have preferred to have seen more of the complexities of this character, I do appreciate that this is a different medium and the decision to make him an all-out villain does make sense when you consider a general audience, nevertheless, he’s great. Jihae is incredible as Anna Fang, and no doubt she’s going to be cosplayed everywhere, because she is a complete bad-ass in this film. I’m not surprised that Philip Reeve particularly loved this portrayal because out of all the characters, I do feel Anna Fang is the most book accurate and I think casual audiences will really take a liking to her as well. Stephen Lang is also worth a mention, as he plays (through motion capture) the Stalker (a resurrected corpse/cyborg), Shrike, who is at face value, an incredibly creepy antagonist, but as the film goes on and revelations come to light, Lang does an amazing job of giving Shrike some humanity, which becomes a key component of his character.

The first two acts of this film I adored, Christian Rivers is clearly a very good world-builder and he does an excellent job creating this immersive universe through stunning visual and practical effects while driving the narrative forward at a very good pace, it never once feels dull. Sadly, it is the third and final act where this film completely falls apart and this still leaves a sour taste in my mouth a few days after seeing it. After taking great care with the story, the final act just goes full-on Hollywood, and not in a good way. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this weak portion of the film is also the portion that diverges from the books so much. Admittedly, the finale of the book may not be as entertaining in a visual medium, but I didn’t find the finale of this film entertaining either, as it is riddled with messy edits, cringe-worthy dialogue and a generic resolution which all goes against the source material. I found myself face-palming, I couldn’t believe that after such a promising start and middle, that the filmmakers completely dropped the ball for the finale in favour of an awful Hollywood ending, people were laughing in my screening and it definitely wasn’t supposed to be funny. Twists and turns that were quite poignant in the books just didn’t land at all, they felt like cheap cliches, and that was so frustrating to see.

This may seem like I’m just ranting as a book-reader, but I watched this film with some people who have never heard of Mortal Engines before, and even they felt the final act ruined the overall experience. When it’s not even doing it for the casual moviegoer, you know something has gone wrong somewhere down the production line. It’s a huge disappointment to what was a film with genuine promise and potential. I can only hope they learn from these mistakes if the sequels get green-lit.

Mortal Engines is visually stunning and recreates Philip Reeve’s vision to near perfection, it feels fresh and exciting for the first two acts but is inevitably bogged down by a rushed ending that adheres to Hollywood conventions instead of following the source material which, in my opinion, would have worked a lot better, even if it isn’t the most attractive finale for your casual movie-goer. The cast is strong and the film does a good job with its characters, although I think the book-readers will feel underwhelmed as they’ll inevitably start comparing like I did. Still, it’s definitely worth a watch and it’s not bad by any stretch, and I do hope that it makes enough money to warrant creating the sequels, because this is only the first part in a quartet and it would be a great shame if audiences don’t get to see what comes next I would love to see this world expanded on the big screen and I am still eager to see more, I just hope the filmmakers learn from their mistakes, because this could have been one of my favourite films of the year, but sadly it will be remembered as one of my biggest disappointments.

I give Mortal Engines a 7/10.




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